Lloyd deMause, Editor The Journal of Psychohistory

Bob Lentz, Psychohistory Forum

BL: How do you define psychohistory?

LdM:  Psychohistory is the study of historical motivations.  If psychology is the study of individual motivation, psychohistory is the study of large groups of people, particularly of those that are important to history.  There are three kinds of psychohistory: the history (or evolution) of childhood, the study of large groups (or group-fantasies), and psychobiography, which connects the first two.  Psychohistory started out being mainly psychobiography with Freud and Erikson — their studies of da Vinci and Gandhi and Luther.  Both Freud and Erikson essentially skipped the history of childhood portion of it.  Erikson never mentioned that Luther was swaddled or similar to everybody else in his time.  So, because there was so much work done on psychobiography in the past hundred years I have tended to mainly stress the history of childhood and group psychology or group-fantasies.  Psychobiography is still important, though.  I have some in my Reagan book and other places.

BL: Of which of your many psychohistorical works — books, publications, organizations — are you most proud?

LdM: It’s fun to do organization work like the International Psychohistorical Association (IPA).  I’m very pleased that there are branches of the Institute for Psychohistory abroad that study my work.  But for the most part, I’m really at heart just a scholar and a metatheorist of social theory.  I’m a careful researcher.  If anything, I over-footnote and over-reference most of my material.  I’d rather not be president or any other officer of the IPA and I just turned down an invitation to a European trip next year.  I really want to spend the next 20 years sitting right here doing nothing but putting all of my research into first The Journal and then book form because I have so much to say that I haven’t even begun to write.

I suppose that Foundations of Psychohistory is more important than Reagan’s America because it has the most childhood material.  But the book I’m writing now, The Emotional Lives of Nations, will probably be the most important because it will sum up what I know about group-fantasies.  The next book, The Psychohistory of the West, will be the second most important because it will take the evolution of childhood period by period and show what kind of family life, sexual life, personality, and institutions came out of it.

If you want me to say what I’m most proud of, I wouldn’t even mention something psychohistorical unless bringing up children is psychohistorical.  I have a son 29 (from my former marriage), a girl 13, and a boy 8 — I’m really an equal parenting partner with my wife — and that’s probably what I’ve spent more time on in my life than psychohistory, and what I’m most proud of.  They’re terrific kids.

BL: Some see your helping mode of parent-child relationships as overly optimistic.  Do you still feel as strongly positive toward it as you did 25 years ago?

LdM: Yes, I really do.  My older son and his friends are good examples of the results of the helping mode of parenting.  They would no more think of going to war than the man in the moon, unless they’re being invaded.  And most of the social craziness just simply isn’t there.  They’re simply missing the traumatic basis for social re-enactment.  And it doesn’t take all that much to be a good parent.  But there are still so few parents who bring up their children without hitting them and without manipulating them for their own emotional satisfaction.  I don’t demand that children be perfect.  I used the word “helping” because that was the most innocuous, simple, little, and pleasant word I could find for “We’ll help you grow up.”  That’s not such a big deal, is it?

BL: No, it’s not.  Is The Emotional Lives of Nations close to being published?

LdM: No, I’m going to do it in The Journal of Psychohistory bit by bit, as I always do, because if you put a book out you don’t sell very many.  If I put it in The Journal it can attract attention chapter by chapter, and people can comment on it and use it in class.  And eventually it will get to be a book.

BL: I’ve seen reference to your new work on the neurobiology of psychohistory.

LdM: That’ll be part of Chapter 3 of The Emotional Lives of Nations.  There have been some recent advances in neurobiology that give a sense of what’s happening in the brain as nations trot off to wars, or have  revolutions or depressions.  Essentially, psychological events looked at a different way, from the other side of the coin, are also physiological events.  There’s no reason why you can’t move back and forth between those two as a psychiatrically-oriented clinician might do with individuals.  In America we are currently suffering from severe serotonin depletion, and neural transmitter imbalances of the catecholamines.  You can measure this and get some sense of the rise and fall of suicide rates, admissions to hospitals, and certain kinds of diseases.

My theories are based on the notion that history, like individual life, contains emotional problems that are created by re-enactment of early traumas.  I think that’s new in the sense of the discovery of the evolution of childhood and its connection with the evolution of history and institutions — history as a re-enactment of early traumas because we all have them in common, even perinatal trauma.  They’re so early that I always study group-fantasies with pre-verbal material because the traumas are pre-verbal.  I don’t think anybody else has studied the sequence of group-fantasies in terms of the phases of group-fantasies as you pass through leadership phases — long phases of innovation, of depressions, of mania, and then war.  Why, every time you go to war, do you say you’re going to be “reborn” by it?  Why do you always say you’re “reborn” in history?  And the phases are quite lawful — they follow certain patterns.  Much of my work on phases hasn’t even been published.

What we psychohistorians are doing, I think, is examining a separate part of the brain that is devoted to social activities.  I call it the social alter.  It stores all of our traumas in a dissociated neural network.  It doesn’t invade our regular daily life.  We stuff things into it to just continue functioning and we then act them out on the social stage together.  Groups are very useful for that.  We sort of switch in and out of these social alter personalities.  I even think I can watch people do it as they talk politic-ese.  Newt Gingrich will start talking about how children cannot be dependent anymore so we’ve got to take all of their welfare away from them, and how we ought to give every ghetto child a laptop computer so he can get onto the Internet. This man was a different personality when he voiced the first idea than when he said the second.  I think he was in his alter personality in the first instance, tapping into his own childhood as the unwanted child of a teenage mother, and then he snapped out of it and switched to his “I’m just plain Newt” and remembered that the previous day he had been surfing the Internet and wished everybody could do that, too.  In the first, he’s talking about himself, about his own stored emotions, but he doesn’t know it.  That’s how you can write big, thick books as people do constantly about war and never mention the words “anger” or “fear.”  The emotions somehow get dissociated.

It’s this dissociated part of the brain that I think psychohistorians examine and no one else does — not psychoanalysts, not therapists in general.  When you’re on the couch, your analyst stays away from your political and religious opinions, knowing that it is the deepest, earliest, most fearsome fantasies, and feelings, and traumas that are buried.  Why should a good therapist duck religious and political opinions?  If you’re most vociferous and most irrational about those, then that’s what he ought to get into.  Well, psychohistorians are the ones who tend to get into those and that’s why people back away from us.  Of the five to ten thousand people I pull in every year through my publicity efforts and speeches and radio programs, only a few hundred join the IPA?  That’s unbelievable, yet it’s true.  Well, I watch them come and go.  I get to know them personally.  And I find that they’re just scared.  Scared.  Clinicians don’t want to go past the couch.  They could be thrown out of their professions.  Academics could lose their jobs.  Graduate students could be thrown out of the graduate program and flunk their orals.  Now, obviously, that has more profound meaning than just, oh gosh, saying we’re scary because we talk about awful things.

BL: Why did you start The Journal?

LdM: No one else would publish my writing!  I wanted to tell people what I’d found.  I was excited!  And I couldn’t tell just my neighbor and my wife.  I had something new in looking at old problems in different ways.  I’m in the business of affecting other people’s view of society.  I appeal to those people out there who are social theorists.  Unfortunately, as with most new paradigms, it’s only the young people — the students in those courses who are given my books — who love it.  For the most part I can’t get past the academics.  As Thomas Kuhn says, the only solution to that is to let them [the older generation of academics] die out.  I’ll appeal to the next generation.

BL: Is there certain material that you prefer for The Journal?

LdM: I’ll be pleased to get almost anything.  I really don’t do psychoanalytic studies of literature because American Imago, The Psychoanalytic Review, and various other international journals do a lot of it.  I don’t take yet one more “Hamlet had an Oedipus complex” and “Somebody else had an Oedipus complex.”  If it’s a literary character with some reality basis that shows how much in Chaucer they’re jumping in and out of the beds of the little girls, that’s fine.  So, too, I tend only to do psychobiography if it’s very rich in childhood.  Just “Here are Abraham Lincoln’s adult traits and I think that they mean he was a depressive.” tends not to get too far with me, unless it’s embedded in childhood.

We’re very catholic.  There is no “line” from the editor.  I just wrote a review of Rudy Binion’s books.  I consider Rudy to be one of the greatest psychohistorians.  Yet he disagrees totally with my whole childhood focus.  But he’s a superb archivist — his work is worth gold.

BL: Does The Journal have a referee system?  Do you send submissions to referees?

LdM: Sometimes, where there are qualified experts who have some knowledge that qualifies them to judge the submission.  But most articles for The Journal are submissions by people who are uniquely qualified in their areas, who have no peers.  Just as articles for early psychoanalytic journals by Freud, Abraham, Ferenczi and others weren’t sent to a bunch of traditional psychiatrists, who knew nothing about the new field of psychodynamics, so, too, I wouldn’t dream of sending an article by Alenka Puhar on child abuse and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or David Beisel on the psychological causes of WWII, or Jean Goodman on multiple personalities in 16th-century possession cases, to a list of traditional academics who usually are unqualified to judge their work.  I myself as editor check out each article at the library for accuracy of references, simply because I learn so much doing so.  But when you are establishing new paradigms, as Kuhn says, rather than doing “usual science” that simply extends previous paradigms, the usual referee system is more damaging than productive.

BL: Will you share with us about your early career?

LdM: I started out as the son of a General Motors executive, going to a General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan, and starting to work for Cadillac Motor Car Division as an accountant.  But I then decided to join the army to get the GI Bill to come to Columbia in New York City to re-do my undergraduate career.  After I came back from Korea I was very much interested in why those little Korean kids were living underneath those bridges, and starving to death at the end of the war that I had joined over there.  So, I was going to be a career diplomat and majored in political science.  Then I started psychoanalytic treatment and training, and decided to try and apply it.  But Columbia University threw me out while I was doing my doctorate, saying there’s no combining political science and mental health.

I remember that Professor Dean, the head of the political science department, said, “Saying what you want to on your PhD is like saying you like strawberry ice cream.  It’s a taste of yours.  But I don’t know anything about psychoanalysis, so you can’t use it.”  I was going to study Hitler and he said, “No, you can’t do that.”  Four years later he was Dean Dean of Columbia College, standing on the barricades for the students who were saying that we ought to get out of the war in Vietnam, and he said to them, “What you want around Columbia — we’re not, after all, a democratic institution — what you want is like saying ‘I like strawberry ice cream.’”  And then James Kunen wrote a book, The Strawberry Statement, which was made into a movie, about the Columbia student uprisings.  And I thought to myself, I was just four years too early!  I would have had the whole Columbia College behind me if I had waited a little longer!

BL: By the late sixties, then, you were working on the history of childhood?

LdM: Yes.  I was the research head of American Imago.  I tried to take it over, make it less literary and more psychohistorical, and failed.  I was doing childhood history myself, since it was obvious to me that childhood was the key to history.  I found that most psychoanalysts, other psychotherapists, and historians did not follow me.  Even the family historians I got to write The History of Childhood finally nearly threw me out of the book even though I was editor.  I thought they would do the main job and I would write a little foreword that would summarize their material.  But their material — they whitewashed so much!  They would bring a 13th-century Tuscan dialect recording of Morelli saying that the parents were really loving to their children: “I put my hand on my wife’s belly and said, ‘I’m not going to beat this child up, and send him out to wet-nurse, and do terrible things to him, like was done to me.  I’m going to be different’.”  I said, “That’s wonderful!  That’s the spirit of the Renaissance — a rebirth of humanism.  Now, let’s turn the microfilm reader and see what finally happened.”  “‘My child has just died at the age of seven. Why did I send him out to wet-nurse?  And why did I beat him?  And why did I never give him any of my time?  And why was I so mean to him all the time?  I didn’t carry out my promise’.”  I said, “That’s good, too — put that in.”  “No, no, we don’t want to put that in.  That makes him look bad.  And anyway, he seems distraught.”  I said, “So, say he’s distraught.  But put it in.  That’s also the Renaissance.  Great aspirations, but you can’t make it.”  No, they wouldn’t do it.  They were cutting out all the material that was emotionally important.  So I wrote my own article at the beginning with my own research and all of the people had a revolution and wanted to throw me out of the book, saying that they wouldn’t appear in a book with me, that they didn’t agree with it at all.

BL: Why is there such a reluctance to do the history of childhood?

LdM: It’s hard work, and why have we overlooked child abuse for millennia?  Even Freud did.  He saw that there was plenty of child abuse around him but didn’t really believe it caused anything.  About the patients that came to him he said, Yes, they were all sexually abused but this has nothing to do with hysteria because everybody’s sexually abused, so how can it etiologically have any bearing on this particular syndrome?  Of course, in some sense he’s right.  You’d have to redo your whole theory.  But the fact that most of the people in his society — most of the children, most of his patients — were quite obviously swaddled, sexually-abused, and beaten to a pulp — Freud and all the psychoanalysts around him said all this had absolutely no effect.  Beating and raping of children — which I think was the reason they came to him, the reason they were sick — he said had no influence.

Family experts might do some family history — how many people lived under one roof in 1780 in England versus in 1810, or how property passed down.  But parent-child relations?  No.  The history of childhood is not mentioned in family history courses or social history courses or feminist history courses.  You’d think the feminists would pay some attention.  Yet they’re absolutely, totally blank on it.

BL: What kind of training or experience should a person enter the field with today?

LdM: Well, they should have some therapy for themselves.  (I’m in my 26th year of analysis.)  They should take one of the social sciences.  And they ought to take a reasonable amount of depth psychology — whether it’s psychoanalytic or other is of less importance, I think, than that they know what the literature is in general.

BL: What about clinical exposure?

LdM: It’s nice, but not absolutely necessary if you have a lot of therapy, because you have to look inside yourself and literally identify and then dis-identify with the aggressors.  One thing I don’t like in psychohistory is continuously identifying with victims and saying, for example, “Well, everybody was killed in the Holocaust and the psychology of the victims is interesting.”  What we need to know is why the perpetrators did it in the first place.  So, I keep asking the same people, “Identify with the Nazis [to gather your initial material] and give me a good analysis of Nazis —  you’ve got some autobiographies of Nazis.”  I get no answers from them.  People who are very much involved.  “I’m a Jew and I can’t,” they’ll say to me, “because that will excuse the Nazis.”  No!  Understanding people does not excuse them!  Understanding doesn’t mean you’re for the murderer and murder, for the aggressor and aggression.  But you first have to understand them to stop it.  And why just plain people become murderers.  There’s an awfulness to society that is hardly suspected.  We’ve just begun to see it.

BL: Who was important to your development?

LdM: Well, I suppose the best teacher I had was C. Wright Mills.  He was in the Sociology Department at Columbia.  I was his research assistant and helped him write White Collar.  He had a lot of energy and would come in and throw his motorcycle saddlebags down and say, “All right!  There’s fourS fiveS six of us.  We’re going to divide up the problems of the world into six and solve them!”  Which I felt was a good way to start out a project.  Rather than “Learn the 52 counties of England by next session.”, which was what Jacques Barzun said in our first class and then I dropped his course.  I honestly didn’t learn much at Columbia other than Mills’ spirit.

BL: As you look back over your career to-date, what would you do differently?

LdM: I would learn a lot more languages — Latin and Greek and so on.  I have to depend on and pay people to translate all the original material.  But you can only do so much.

BL: In a December 5, 1994, New Yorker article you said that a good scientist should try to predict.  What about prediction in psychohistory?

dM:  I think a good psychohistorian — or any other scientist — ought to be using his or her predictions because we don’t have any way to experiment.  Even in psychology you’ve got some animal experiments in laboratories where you can actually go into the hippocampus to see if it’s being depleted of serotonin.  In history, you just don’t.  I can’t go out and change the face of history.  Nor do you ever have a second chance at anything.  Every morning, one or more of my friends in psychohistory call and ask, “What does that cartoon mean?”, or say, “It looks like we’re going to war.”, or, “What will Clinton do to respond to all these cartoons and other material that say he’s a wimp?”  This kind of constant prediction is the best you can do.  And I think it’s important to do it.  I try not to be too proud of it because I’m wrong more often than I’m right.  But my being wrong makes me modify my hypothesis.

We’re still at that early stage in a science where our first job is postulating bold hypotheses and modifying or disproving them and starting over.  What we want to do, I think, is make all of those things that we’re now so terribly familiar with unfamiliar.  We know what war is.  My God, do we have to study another war?!  You’ve got whole libraries full of wars.  And depressions.  And shootings of Presidents.  What we need to do is make them seem problematic for the first time, whereas before they just seemed natural.  That’s what Freud did on individuals, I think.  Before him, “They’re hysterical.  Well, it must be in the genes, or their constitution.”  And everybody nodded.  And he listened, and he listened, and he said, “Well, wait a minute.  What was the previous trauma, what do you associate it to?  And then what happened?  What was the first time you did that?”  He strung it back and essentially found the way the brain stores memories, strung on these clumping mechanisms and neurons, and made it unfamiliar again.  Then he asked the right questions.  I don’t think we’re asking the right questions.

BL: What are the right questions?

LdM: A right question is, “What are the motivations for social action?”  We need to bring emotions back into the social sphere from which they have been thrown out by historians, sociologists, and everybody else.  Durkheim started sociology based on the fact that you don’t have to study the psychology of any individual at all, you don’t have to study emotions, and wrote a book saying that in suicide you don’t even have to know what the emotions of anybody are to understand it.  To bring psychology back in, to find out what the real emotions are, trace those back to their sources, sticking close to the empirical record.  Watching more closely what’s really happening in front of you is the task.

When Dave Beisel [SUNY<Rockland Community College], who is now teaching his 5,000th psychohistory student, starts students out he plunges them right into their own childhood, he has them go talk to their mother and grandmother and see what they were like in their childhood.  He has them go right out to the newsstand and pull in all the editorial cartoons they can and plunge right in and say, “What’s the emotion?”  He doesn’t care if any of them have taken a course in Freud.  You don’t need a course in Freud!  If you look at the cartoons and you see nothing for three or four months but women like Lorena Bobbitt and Hillary Clinton with knives, then you know there’s some fantasy abroad that women are out there with knives.  And when suddenly, the day that O.J. Simpson allegedly stabs his wife with a knife, all those disappear and for the next four months only men have knives, then I don’t care what your theoretical system is — you have a psychohistorical observation that you have to explain somehow.  So, I want to plunge into the empirical material, both present and past, and see what the emotions are.

BL: Going back to that New Yorker article for a minute, do you feel six months later that we’re still in a manic period and that another war is coming?

LdM: It’s yet to be seen whether Clinton will be a Bush and actually carry it out [as Bush did in Panama and the 1991 Persian Gulf War] because he’s afraid of being called a wimp or whether he will he be a Carter who just pushed his foot into the ground and said, “I will not do that.”  Carter went as far as to send a helicopter [into Iran during the 1979-1980 hostage crisis] but when that helicopter crashed he didn’t put the rest of the troops in.  And we threw him out because he didn’t.  With Clinton, it has to do with what’s going on in his head right now, and in the heads of his advisers.  His mother left him when he was very, very young, although the grandmother wasn’t so bad.  The stepfather beat him up, and actually had a gun, and beat up the mother, so that wasn’t so good.  Maybe he’s got enough trauma in him to say, “I have to play that out on the historical stage.”  So far, though, he’s pretty much dug his feet into the ground.  Though he was ready to go to war in Haiti, wasn’t he?  Except for Carter who came in and ruined it for him!

BL: How can psychohistorians strengthen our work today?  Have more influence?

LdM: We strengthen our work just simply by doing more research and more writing and more sharing with each other.  Encourage each other and don’t backbite.  I honestly don’t worry too much about influence.  You hear about the bombing in Oklahoma City and next day I get 20 phone calls from newspapers, radio programs, and TV programs.  There’s enough people listening to us if we have the answers.  I’ve suggested, for instance, that we ought to have nuclear tension monitoring centers around the world so that in case there’s another Cuban missile crisis, you ought to have somebody to pick up the phone and call just like you have a suicide hotline to say, “Gee, I’m about to jump out the window.  Is there anything you can say to dissuade me from this?”  A couple people in the UN thought it might be a good idea.  Nothing was done.  Meanwhile we’ve got branches abroad, we’re getting the beginning of the ability to do it ourselves. The influence will come.

BL: How would you like to see psychohistory develop over the next decade or so?

LdM: I hope it’ll be around in a decade!  I really consider its survival a miracle because humans’ capacity to deny their emotional problems, that they act out on the social stage, is so vast, so enormous, and so collusive.  Newt Gingrich will come on stage and say, “We’ve got to take all the money away from all these children because they’re getting too dependent on welfare, on food stamps, and on school lunches.”  For the most part we collude, “There’s no psychological problem in that.” Just as we once colluded in saying schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, and other kinds of individual problems were just craziness.  We don’t say, “Now, what happened?  How can you have this?  There’s something goofy going on here.”  We have to overcome that vast collusive denial.

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